TR Robertson — Moira Buffini’s “Gabriel” speaks of an incident in the history of World War II few people in the states are aware of, a time when a sizable number of people fled their island homes to reach safety and a time when many stayed in their island homes and persevered. The time period is World War II, 1943 to be exact, the people are the citizens of The Channel Islands, 8 British territory islands, the situation is the invasion and occupation of the islands by Nazi Germany. Buffini has created, in her play, a tense, mesmerizing story of one families struggle to survive on the island of Guernsey, dealing with a ruthless German officer and trying to solve the mystery of a young man who washes up on a beach near their home.
Most people have little knowledge of the German occupation of this part of Britain, closer to France than England. The Germans invaded The Channel Islands on June 30, 1940 and would remain on the islands until the end of the war in 1945. Over half of the islanders fled to England, before the Germans landed, and those who remained would try, at first, to survive and deal peacefully with the German occupation. As time and the war continued, the islanders would suffer near starvation, surviving on the slimiest of food rations and medical care. In 1944, the Germans allowed a Swedish International Red Cross ship to dock and treat those in need and receive food supplies to tie them over. Today, those visiting the islands can see remains of fortifications the Germans built around the islands as well as tunnels connecting some of the fortifications. These tunnels were built by Russian slave labor.
Photos by Aaron Rumley
Buffini’s play tells of a household of women of various ages, living in a small run-down cabin, having been removed from their much larger home, which is called The Hermitage. German officers had taken over The Hermitage and evicted the women. Most of the men on the island had either fled or joined the war against the Nazis. Jeanne Becquet is the feisty, I’ll do anything necessary to help my family survive, matron of the family. Her 10 year old daughter, Estelle, feels she can create magical powers to help the family’s situation, and her impulsive nature seems to always get her in trouble. Lily is the wife of Jeanne’s son. Her husband is a piolet for the RAF and hasn’t been heard from for quite some time. The final member of the household is Margaret Lake, an older woman who feels Jeanne takes too many risks and puts the family in danger with some of her actions. She just wants to get along to survive.
The two men in the play could not be any more different. The German officer is in charge of the soldiers on Guernsey. When we first meet him, he seems rather buffoonish, but we will soon find out he is anything but that. Von Pfunz is conniving, ruthless when necessary, and a person not to cross. This is shown best when he says to Jeanne, “War is governed by force and chaos, whoever is winning is the law”. He is also love struck by Jeanne and despite her efforts to humiliate him, lie to him and go behind his back at every turn, he desires her more and more. The other man in the play enters after Estelle finds him unconscious, naked on the beach. When the man awakens, he has no idea where he is, what is going on, what his name is and how he arrived on the island. Estelle names him Gabriel, thinking he might be a heavenly answer to the family’s needs. The family tries to keep Gabriel away from Von Pfunz as they take care of him. Finally, Gabriel awakens and Lily finds herself falling in love with him. Von Pfunz and Gabriel finally meet and the English speaking Gabriel immediately breaks into speaking German. The family had thought Gabriel was a downed RAF piolet, but now they are not so sure. The family tries to convince Von Pfunz he is their cousin. Von Pfunz is not so sure. As the plot thickens, the family, Jeanne especially, builds lie upon lie and the wily Von Pfunz tries to pick the story apart. This, coupled with a series of pranks and a theft Estelle pulls on Von Pfunz, pushing him over the edge. Turmoil will build, tempers will rise and the conclusion will surprise, shock and definitely leave you wondering, who Gabriel is.
Christopher Williams, Associate Artistic Director at North Coast Rep is the Director of “Gabriel” and he has a very talented and professional group of actors and actresses to bring this challenging play to the stage. Playing the ruthless Von Pfunz, with a wonderful German accent, is the award winning actor, director and producer Richard Baird. Baird has performed in twenty-three North Coast Rep productions and is a Craig Noel San Diego Critics Circle award winner. He brings just the right amount of humor, anger and even a little sympathy to the Nazi officer. Playing Gabriel is Alan Littlehales, making his North Coast Rep debut. His portrayal of the “lost” Gabriel is spot-on. You can feel his fear and the tension in his voice as he tries to discover who he is.
Playing the cunning, protective, sassy Jeanne Becquet is Jessica John. John returns to NC Rep having performed in three other productions at the theatre. She is a San Diego Critics Circle Award winner and this is clearly one of her top performances. Her daughter-in-law, Lily, is played by Lilli Passero, making her NC Rep debut. As the passionate, caring Lily, she brings an innocence to the role, mixed in with a bit of a fighter. In a side note, Lilli was a Top 10 Finalist on Season 12 of NBC’s “The Voice”. In a time of turmoil, Margaret Lake breaks the tension with wit, spunk and concern. Annabella Price is wonderful as the oldest member of this household of ladies. Price has performed in a number of theatrical, television and film productions including North Coast Rep. The youngest member of the cast, Catalina Zelles, played Jeanne’s daughter Estelle. Catalina is making her NC Rep debut. The young Zelles has been in a number of theatrical productions, won a number of awards and performs like a seasoned veteran. She brings an exuberance to her role as a young lady determined to make things better for her family, even if it means making mistakes along the way.
Christopher Williams Design Team included Resident Scenic Designer Marty Burnett, Lighting Designer Matthew Novotny, Costume Designer Eliza Benzoni, Sound Designer Ryan Ford, Props – Phillip Korth, Stage Manager Andrea Gutierrez and German Language Coach Andreas Kern.
“Gabriel” will be on stage at NC Rep in Solana Beach until March 17th. Tickets are available at www.northcoastrep.org or call 858-481-1055. Next up for NC Rep is “All in the Timing” by David Ives, beginning on April 10th. NC Rep’s Variety Nights will present Impro Theatre’s “L.A.Noir Unscripted” on March 4th and “Men Are From Mars – Women Are From Venus – Live!” on March 5th.